Saharan dust induces NLRP3-dependent inflammatory cytokines in an alveolar air-liquid interface co-culture model

October 20, 2023

Gerrit Bredeck1, Jochen Dobner1, Burkhard Stahlmecke2, Khanneh Wadinga Fomba3, Hartmut Herrmann3, Andrea Rossi1 and Roel P. F. Schins1
1IUF – Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine, 40225 Düsseldorf, Germany
2Institut für Umwelt & Energie, Technik & Analytik e. V. (IUTA), 47229 Duisburg, Germany
3Atmospheric Chemistry Department (ACD), Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research (TROPOS), 04318 Leipzig, Germany

Epidemiological studies have related desert dust events to increased respiratory morbidity and mortality. Although the Sahara is the largest source of desert dust, Saharan dust (SD) has been barely examined in toxicological studies. Here, we aimed to assess the NLRP3 inflammasome-caspase-1-pathway-dependent pro-inflammatory potency of SD in comparison to crystalline silica (DQ12 quartz) in an advanced air-liquid interface (ALI) co-culture model. Therefore, we exposed ALI co-cultures of alveolar epithelial A549 cells and macrophage-like differentiated THP-1 cells to 10, 21, and 31 µg/cm² SD and DQ12 for 24 h using a Vitrocell Cloud system. Additionally, we exposed ALI co-cultures containing caspase (CASP)1−/− and NLRP3−/− THP-1 cells to SD.

Characterization of nebulized DQ12 and SD revealed that over 90% of agglomerates of both dusts were smaller than 2.5 μm. Characterization of the ALI co-culture model revealed that it produced surfactant protein C and that THP-1 cells remained viable at the ALI. Moreover, wild type, CASP1−/−, and NLRP3−/− THP-1 cells had comparable levels of the surface receptors cluster of differentiation 14 (CD14), toll-like receptor 2 (TLR2), and TLR4. Exposing ALI co-cultures to non-cytotoxic doses of DQ12 and SD did not induce oxidative stress marker gene expression. SD but not DQ12 upregulated gene expressions of interleukin 1 Beta (IL1B), IL6, and IL8 as well as releases of IL-1β, IL-6, IL-8, and tumor necrosis factor α (TNFα). Exposing wild type, CASP1−/−, and NLRP3−/− co-cultures to SD induced IL1B gene expression in all co-cultures whereas IL-1β release was only induced in wild type co-cultures. In CASP1−/− and NLRP3−/− co-cultures, IL-6, IL-8, and TNFα releases were also reduced.

Since surfactants can decrease the toxicity of poorly soluble particles, the higher potency of SD than DQ12 in this surfactant-producing ALI model emphasizes the importance of readily soluble SD components such as microbial compounds. The higher potency of SD than DQ12 also renders SD a potential alternative particulate positive control for studies addressing acute inflammatory effects. The high pro-inflammatory potency depending on NLRP3, CASP-1, and IL-1β suggests that SD causes acute lung injury which may explain desert dust event-related increased respiratory morbidity and mortality.

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